For Cari Moore, being an early educator is, in part, a second chance to make up for time she lost when she was a child struggling with meningitis and severe allergies to foods, including peanut butter and chocolate. It was a tough time, but it led to a fulfilling career.

Moore’s family moved to the United States from Panama, and Moore grew up in Chelsea. Her mother spoke Spanish, but wanted Moore to speak English, so Moore decided to teach herself Spanish.

As Moore began thinking about careers, she drew on her own experience.

“I thought I wanted to be a pediatrician,” she says. “I wanted to do what doctors had done for me because I really appreciated that. But once I realized that child care and schools were an option, I realized I wanted to become a teacher. Even though doctors were important to me, so were teachers. When I missed school, it was my teachers who would come and see me. They would have packets for me.”

Moore also spent years being the youngest cousin in her family. And when a new cousin was born, when Moore was a teenager, she stepped up to babysit for that child. And, as a high school student, Moore traveled to Mexico where she worked in a camp, coming up with activities to help children learn more about their communities.

By the time Moore applied to college, she knew that she wanted to work with children, and she choose to attend Wheelock College. 

“Wheelock felt like home. It felt cozy,” she recalls. “I majored in psychology with a specialty in early education.” 

She also worked as an intern at Ellis Early Learning Center.

“I had a great relationship with the person who was the director then, and when my internship was ending, I just straight out asked her if I could start working here. She said, Yes, and I started as a sub and became a co-teacher when I graduated. Counting my internship, I’ve been at Ellis for six years.”

Today, Moore is a lead teacher, and what makes the job more meaningful for her is that when she was young and grappling with her health challenges, not many people expected her to make it this far. But she had her final surgery last year, and she has outgrown her food allergies. 

“My favorite candy is Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” Moore says, pointing out that she has gotten over her allergies to both peanut butter and chocolate. 

For Moore, there is joy in being an early educator, but she is also focused on the responsibility and the thoughtfulness that her work requires.

“My biggest goal is for my students to learn to be aware of themselves and aware of the world, even in the smallest ways,” she says. “I teach young toddlers, my youngest is six months, and within the curriculum we use, I find activities that help them become more self-aware.”

It’s awareness of themselves and the world, Moore says, that helps students learn, develop social skills, and pursue whatever makes them curious.

“My toddlers look at pictures of themselves, and they love staring at themselves in the mirror. My oldest toddler can point to himself, and he can also point to his friends in pictures and in person. That’s very important because I want him to make friends. And he takes it further. He’s very loving, he plays with all the kids no matter how old they are. He also likes to share and explore. Yesterday we went out to a small park, and he was excited about the rocks. Each rock that he found, he would run up and show me. He doesn’t have a lot of words yet, so he’s not saying much. But he’s sharing his excitement, and I work hard to nurture that.”

“People assume that we are playing with babies all day,” Moore adds. “It sounds fun, and it can be fun. But we’re also working hard to prepare children’s days for them. And then sometimes we have to make things up on the spot. The work can be overwhelming.”

Moore is grateful to be an early educator at Ellis, which provides support for its teachers, including professional development programs. 

What’s missing, she says, are the larger public investments.

“There’s a lot of attention on K to 12, which is very important. But we also have to focus more resources on the first five years, those early years are so important for children.”

What’s Moore’s favorite children’s book?

“I have two,” she explains. “My first one is Goodnight Moon,” the classic children’s book written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd.

“And the second one,” Moore says, “is The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros because it felt as close to home as I could get when I was young.” 

Cisneros’ book isn’t technically a children’s book, but Moore explains why it’s so meaningful to her.

“Growing up, I couldn’t find a lot of books about my culture. That was the first one I found, and that was the one that I held near and dear.”

So whether it’s for herself or for the children she teaches, it’s essential, as Moore says, to teach children — and sometimes adults — to be aware of themselves and to be aware of their world so that they can bring excitement and energy to everything they explore.